PRINT May 2007

David Rimanelli

Bridget Riley, Blaze 3, 1963, acrylic on board, 37 1/2 x 37 1/2".  From “Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s,” Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH, 2007.

SO WHY OP NOW? Some forty years after the Museum of Modern Art, New York, introduced Op art to the American public with its landmark 1965 exhibition “The Responsive Eye,” two museums have mounted historical shows looking back: “Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s” at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio (through June 17); and “Op Art” at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (through May 20). Both are ambitious curatorial efforts, distinct in certain relative emphases, and for that very reason providing in tandem an unusually rich perspective on a movement consigned by pretty much everyone to the dustbin of art history. Yet such impressive attentiveness only serves to raise the stakes with respect to the question, Why should we be looking at this midcentury anachronism again? What are we supposed to learn? The cynic no doubt wonders whether all those museum curators, academics, and artists who have been mining the ’60s for good material finally found the well dried up—meaning, Op is all that’s left to “rediscover.” But then, looking again with a more self-conscious eye, one wonders if we might discover something more about ourselves if we consider Op—and, more specifically, “The Responsive Eye”—less in light of its art than of the cultural phenomena surrounding it. After all, the exhibition was in a sense the first contemporary art blockbuster: Remember the lines around the block to get in; the readymade “controversy” regarding Op’s aesthetic viability; the media craze, complete with a documentary by first-time filmmaker Brian De Palma; the unprecedented public embrace of Op, attended by the rapacious commodification and virtually instantaneous ubiquity of the look; the mindless fun to be had! Everything contemporary art curators today wish their shows could be. (It is no denigration to curators that they desire more than a day in the sun, or that, in our preponderantly post-Warholian artistic weltanschauung, curators no less than artists and starlets think that fifteen minutes are no longer enough.) One explanation for this sudden reappearance of Op, in other words, is that it is a past moment that all too clearly anticipates our present, distinguished by the heretofore unimaginable mainstreaming of contemporary art, its vastly increased visibility to the general public, the star status of more artists than ever, the art world’s attraction for the fashion and glamour press, and the fascination with money, so much money.

Such was, at least, my initial thinking. Pressed on the subject of Op art before seeing these shows, I would probably have passively sided with Clement Greenberg, who dismissed Op as yet another misshapen species of “Novelty art” or “Good Design”—memorable put-downs that he also directed at most art of the ’60s, whether Pop or Minimalism or myriad other manifestations of retrograde or plain phony aesthetic phenomena. (Greenberg either missed “The Responsive Eye” or deemed it beneath his notice; I can find no reference to it in his published writings.) But now I am compelled to reconsider the Op-is-junk bias. Op, regardless of its numerous contemporaneous detractors and of the dim fate usually accorded it by art history, is, in its best moments, a movement of keen visual, intellectual, and historical interest. That is what makes both the Columbus and Frankfurt excavations terrific: They restore Op as a subject of genuine fascination; they might even rescue forgotten careers, e.g., those of Carlos Cruz-Diez, Wojciech Fangor, Wolfgang Ludwig, Jesús-Rafaël Soto, Julian Stanczak. Sure, some of this work in disparate mediums does look like junk, but some of it looks really hot. In Columbus, Bridget Riley’s Current, 1964, which was featured on the cover of the “Responsive Eye” catalogue, still stands out as an extraordinary (and extraordinarily bizarre) achievement, a work of tightly controlled formal invention—“Modernist painting,” really, despite Greenberg’s indifference—and, notwithstanding Riley’s protests to the contrary, one that shimmers and shivers torturously, an event no less than an object. And Victor Vasarely emerges in both shows not as a tacky joke but, actually, as a quite brilliant painter—although I might have to restrict that assessment to early black-and-white works such as Vega, 1957; Lux Novae, 1962; and OETA, 1956–58. In assessing these pieces, one must remember that they are neither posters nor computer-generated graphics but, precisely, paintings. Their “push-pull” effects are not of the sort advocated by Hans Hofmann, but they aren’t easy, either. Eschewing color, these paintings have an astringent intelligence about them, a genuinely experimental flavor: “cybernetic art” rendered meticulously by hand. As Vasarely wrote: “In my black-and-white Binary Units, better known as ‘Op Art,’ . . . I am conscious of having achieved the first important programming of ‘structuralist plasticity,’ which provides an opening to cybernetics.” (His later, color-saturated paintings such as Vonal Lila, 1968, and Vega Or, 1969, are striking after a fashion, but yes, maybe tacky in that groovy-cheap sort of way.)

And so I feel oddly like a convert to a dead religion, or perhaps like a medieval scholastic, parsing the writings of the Greek and Latin fathers for those seemingly minute but crucial distinctions between Origen and Augustine concerning that predestination problem. Regarding Op, the salient issues revolve around optics versus opticality, temporality versus instantaneity, maybe even science versus spirit. Giving the subject its pretty much de rigueur sociopolitical spin, one might “question” or “investigate” the values of an art movement with certain avowed populist tenets in contradistinction to concurrent trends that remained proudly, obdurately elitist.

The purportedly democratic, antielitist character of Op finds a reflection in curator Joe Houston’s “Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s,” which to some extent follows patterns established by William C. Seitz, curator of “The Responsive Eye,” who embraced a wide spectrum of artists as representatives of the Op trend. This by itself might seem a somewhat provocative move for contemporary audiences, since numerous artists who appeared in the MoMA exhibition cannot by any reasonably precise definition be characterized as Op artists. (But then, how many people not old enough to have actually attended “The Responsive Eye” can name more than two artists affiliated with this expansive, international movement?) The Columbus exhibition features established practitioners within the Greenbergian-Friedian Color Field academy, viz., Kenneth Noland, Paul Feeley, and Larry Poons—although Poons remains a special case, stranded between Color Field and Op in a way that Noland and Morris Louis never could be. (Seitz also included Louis.) “Opticality” is not Op. In addition, the following Op-adjacent—or simply “not Op”—artists reappear in Houston’s selection: Josef Albers (“the father” of Op, in his own words), Max Bill, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Liberman, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Agnes Martin, John McLaughlin, and Gene Davis. Needless to say, the overlap of “branded” Op artists and collectives—e.g., the Italian Gruppo T and Gruppo N, the French Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), and the Spanish Equipo 57—between the shows is extensive. But it’s quite a stretch to regard Kelly as an exponent of Op or even as epiphenomenal to the movement; yet Houston follows Seitz almost to the letter, showing Blue Green Red rather than Green Blue Red (both 1964). (Seitz’s explanation, however, is rational rather than catchall in this instance: “[T]he new abstraction sometimes employs a quite nonclassical symmetry in which two identical or almost identical elements divide the picture into an equivocal either-or situation, often around an empty center as in Ellsworth Kelly’s Green Blue Red. . . . The division of the picture surface into two equally important foci stimulates a perceptual urge to fuse the two images into one, as with a stereoscopic viewer.”)

Cover of Vogue, June 1965.

Continuities between “Optic Nerve” and “The Responsive Eye” persist even in certain aspects of the exhibition designs and the catalogues. Houston retains a section title—“Black and White”—that Seitz used in his catalogue, and employs it as well in demarcating one of the installations in Columbus. Another chapter heading and installation rubric for “Optic Nerve”—“Monochrome”—corresponds to Seitz’s brief catalogue section on “‘Invisible’ Painting,” which mentions only Reinhardt and Paul Brach and, if anything, implies that works such as these are denuded of their quiddity in the bustling context of “The Responsive Eye”: “It is wrong, perhaps, to show close-valued paintings in crowded exhibitions, for their viability lies at the threshold of invisibility.” Tenuous connections can perhaps be drawn between Seitz’s “Reliefs and Constructions” section and Houston’s gallery bearing the rubric “Environments,” but in fact Houston goes much further, if only in his catalogue essay, than Seitz’s vague indications (“Soto’s dynamic ‘Vibrations’”—which he didn’t include—“the serrated paintings by Yaakov [sic] Agam, and the reliefs in plastic, wood, glass, and metal by Yvaral and other artists would not be alive for an immobile spectator”). Houston refers to the explosion of Op consciousness into pop music, psychedelia, and the drug culture through “multimedia presentations fus[ing] . . . programmed sequences of colored lights, slide projections, film, and liquid crystals into a vivid and all-encompassing sensory experience. Visually analogous to an LSD trip, the light shows became a popular symbol of the emerging drug culture.” Of course he can go beyond Seitz: Op is now art history. Seitz organized “The Responsive Eye” as an examination of tendencies in contemporary art circa 1965: perspicacious, to say the least, but hardly triumphant. Seitz resigned from the Modern the same year, purportedly “worn out and embittered” by the controversy engendered by the show.

For the cultural elite’s antagonism toward Op was every bit as intense as the general public’s (and popular press’s) fascination with it. The highbrow dismissal of Op came from artists and critics: Noland spoke of optical “delusions.” Writing in the April 1965 issue of Artforum, Barbara Rose spoke of “optical hysteria” and dismissed the work as “expressively neutral, having to do with sensation alone.” Rosalind Krauss, still evidently operating within the intellectual arena of Greenberg, connects Op to the tradition of trompe l’oeil and denigrates its visual trickery, its “duplicity.” Donald Judd was rather open to Tadasky’s paintings in a February 1965 review—the same month “The Responsive Eye” opened—remarking with characteristic brevity, “It’s fairly good”; but in October of the previous year he had dismissed Stanczak, while simultaneously giving the movement its name: “Optical effects are one thing, a narrow phenomenon, and color effects are another, a wide range. Op art.” But popular usage of the term derived from an unsigned article by Time magazine correspondent Jon Borgzinner, “Op Art: Pictures that Attack the Eye.” It is thus in the context of the mainstream media that the question of Op’s “attack” is first broached.

With the title “The Responsive Eye,” Seitz not only referred to the contemporary work on display, but implied an entire historical legacy based (correctly) on the inaugural avant-garde formal experiments of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and the continuation of this lineage in Fauvism, Der Blaue Reiter, and nonobjective movements such as de Stijl, Orphism, and the Bauhaus. A response means both reaction and reply; “responsive” sounds sensitive, delicately attuned to stimuli of all kinds. But what Op art isn’t is pleasant, for all its ostensible populism. Op is not an art of luxe, calme et volupté. It proffers not sensuous visual experience but, on the contrary, a deliberate assault on vision. The attack is not theoretical, as in the hypostatizations of Conceptual art (Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, Michael Asher, et al.); it’s literal, an invasion of the viewer’s physical corpus. “Op’s larger reception dwelled upon the visual enticements of the object, which then passed over to a sense of bodily assault, vertigo, and nausea,” Pamela M. Lee writes in “Bridget Riley’s Eye/Body Problem,” the third chapter of her Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (2004), “This was work of a keenly felt physicality, even a dangerous physicality. . . . [T]he eyes are somehow attacked by the paintings and are experienced as a peculiar aggressiveness on the part of the artist. . . . Descriptions of bodily repulse, headaches, and far worse are commonplace in the literature. . . . ‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ was typical of such responses.”

Certainly that was my experience standing in the single best gallery installation at “Optic Nerve,” a room devoted to “Black and White,” which assembles, among other works, Vasarely’s Lux Novae; Bill Komodore’s Thousands, 1964; Julian Stanczak’s Anywhere-Everywhere, 1967; Wolfgang Ludwig’s Pittura cinematica (Cinematic Painting), 1964; and Riley’s Tremor, 1962. Adjacent galleries include additional black-and-white canvases—Marina Apollonio’s Circular Dynamics, 1968; François Morellet’s Tirets 0–90°, 1960; and Riley’s Current, to name three. Staring at the last—again, deservedly one of the greatest artworks ascribed to a movement that discovered in Riley a most unwilling superstar—the experience of vision is protracted, tremulous, uncertain, and, if the viewer gives the painting the time it needs, painful. The afterimages encountered in Vasarely and Komodore are quiescent, if not exactly anodyne in comparison. The diametrical opposition of black and white yields various optical effects: afterimages, virtual motion, spatial illusions, and, most remarkable, apparitions of phantom color. Riley’s Current is a stellar example of these effects, especially the last. “Her black-and-white vibrations were among the works that caused museum guards to petition for permission to wear sunglasses in ‘The Responsive Eye,’” Houston notes, “and her black-and-white wiggles even inspired packaging for anti-vertigo medication.”

The Schirn Kunsthalle’s “Op Art” takes a different approach, but its effect is much the same: Its marked emphasis on installation extends Op’s pain principle by immersing the viewer within full-fledged environments of the sort only hinted at in “Optic Nerve.” There are of course again extensive overlaps between it and “The Responsive Eye” (and perforce with “Optic Nerve”), but curator Martina Weinhart limits her selection of artists and collectives to those explicitly connected with the loosely defined yet internationally received Op art movement. Yet here the intimate connections between Op and kinetic art (another art-historical “loser”?) are vividly illustrated by a much wider spectrum of Op-kinetic work than that afforded by “Optic Nerve.” If anything, too many painting-objects were in motion; the buzz of motors became another sensory stimulant/irritant—and so while the paintings, painting-objects, and flashing-light installations bedazzled me here, I could again attest to the physical discomfort that Op can induce, a discomfort expanding beyond the eye itself to the inner ear (vertigo) and even to the guts (nausea). At Schirn, the ultimate nonobjective pièce de théâtre in a series of galleries devoted to “light kinetics” is Davide Boriani’s Ambiente stroboscopico 4 (Stroboscopic Envir­onment 4), 1967/2007. One enters a dark, square room. The walls are mirrored, as is an interior area whose floor and ceiling are also mirror-clad. Additionally, there are four rotating mirrors affixed to a likewise rotating base. The floor’s perimeter, or the exterior square, consists of sections of alternating green and red stripes (spectral opposites) reminiscent of Stella paintings such as Untitled (Rabat) and Marrakech (both 1964). The entire installation is wired so that the visitor’s movement within the space activates four stroboscopic projectors, which interchange beams of red and green light at high speed.

Is that perfectly clear? There is a sign outside the room: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK! [THE STROBOSCOPIC ROOM] CAN CAUSE IRRITATION AMONG PERSONS SENSITIVE TO LIGHT. And also probably among persons insensitive to mere light, relatively speaking. The effect is insane yet mesmerizing. I returned on several occasions, desiring another environmental Op hit. On one occasion, while I was decompressing outside the light-kinetics galleries, I witnessed two men emerge, one clasping his forehead and expressing obvious discomfiture, while the other blinked and stared, blinked and stared—really, no kidding.

Boriani’s own comments on this work dilate on the phenomenological effects of the installation on the viewer: “The viewer finds her/himself in the center of a room of immeasurable dimensions and impermanent forms; a room that is being alluded to by its infinite reflexes in manifold orientations. . . . Experience shows that staying in this room puts the viewer in a state of psycho-sensoric hyper-infuriation gradually followed by an easily (foreseeable) spiritual and physical fatigue.” Right. I wanted to resurrect Greenberg through necromancy and imprison him inside the Boriani room for a long time: Novelty art, for sure, but supercool in a slick, sick-making way.

If Boriani articulates a connection between the spiritual and the physical with respect to the Ambiente stroboscopico 4, it is a dichotomy that pervades Op art, a movement explicitly aligning itself with technology; yet in its interventions aimed at quotidian perception it is implicitly visionary, manifesting a spiritual quest at odds with its scientific allegiances and pretensions. The crossing of scientism with visionary experience lies at the heart of the Op experience, delineating its mechanistic character in dissonant resonance with its aspirations for a transformation of life that cannot be reduced to the specificity of color theory or the physics of moiré patterns.

Like most movements of the ’60s, Op had its own politics. It proclaimed a direct appeal to the senses—anyone’s senses, not the rarefied gaze of connoisseurs. “Art is the plastic aspect of community,” Vasarely wrote in 1953, long before Op as such existed. The Op “democratization of art”—Vasarely’s phrase, the title of his 1954 manifesto—remains steeped in a “positivist” attitude toward technology, and the movement remained explicitly attached to ideas of progress. But how do these communitarian and technophile impulses square with the discomfort/vertigo question? Does the radicalization of content presuppose a radicalization of form, as it did for Berlin Dada, Futurism, and Russian Constructivism? Does the visual overload/overkill of so much Op art (Boriani’s “psycho-sensoric infuriation”), its pointed destabilization of “normal” vision, correspond to a potential rupture in established modes of social and political address and behavior? Op art stands at the intersection of these contradictions, its positivist belief in technological progress bluntly opposed by the pain inflicted by many of the artworks, and the concomitant, acute sense of perceptual and bodily disequilibrium they induce, from Riley’s Current to Boriani’s stroboscopic room. This is the true politics of Op, quite different from its ostensible program. It accords with profound epistemic rifts within the broader culture of the 1960s. Op is the nonobjective correlative of psychedelia, the promise of a realm of vision and experience beyond the accepted protocols of quotidian existence. But its potential, historically understood and as an early twenty-first-century “revival,” depends on its capacity to alert the viewer to what he is already experiencing, even though he may not be conscious yet of what exactly is going on. The pain and disequilibrium that are absolutely constitutive of Op—the way it rattles the cage of “everyday life”—point to what isn’t future-fantastic in our technocratic and media-glutted modern world. Utopian dreams brush constantly against dystopian dread; dysphoria follows euphoria as today’s hangover follows last night’s cocktails. Headache and party fuse.

View of “Optic Nerve,” 2007, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH.

The Op experience today is one we encounter not within the precincts of fine art but in the world at large: the spectacle afforded by certain cities at night as one is dazzled and disoriented by the flashing neon signs of Times Square, Las Vegas, Tokyo. This is the authentic legacy of Op art, and it is far superior to the blip another Op micromoment might enjoy in the galleries. “London at night, seen from an airplane, the fantastic carousel of neon lights at Times Square, the fireworks of Bastille Day, the lights of cars on the road, the flickering ballet of light reflected in water, the nocturnal magic of an oil refinery,” wrote Yvaral, a member of GRAV, and Vasarely’s son. All of this visual excess and hubbub persists in the world today. It’s just much bigger, geographically and technologically.

So the communitarian, populist, democratic enthusiasm of Op artists, their pride in creating artworks that could appeal to the layman, unencumbered by modernist theory, is in a sense fulfilled—but, I repeat, in the world world rather than in the art world. And yet this sensory overload is really the manifestation of product advertisement and branding and corporate identity, even if you can’t tell what exactly is being sold or promoted amid the shimmering, blinking, radiating, pulsing optical chaos. Walking through Times Square and its environs, one is bombarded by advertisements. Whether these ads are selling Chase Manhattan or edible underwear ultimately doesn’t matter: Everyone needs a bank, and some people desire hazelnut-flavored panties. It’s thrilling in its way, the crazed, flashing hypertrophy of, uh, “late capitalism.” Take a stroll through a superstore, Target, for instance, with its vestigial Op logotype and, in repetition, the Op-ish patterning of said logo in advertisements and commercial spaces. The proliferation of products creates its own frenzied—and for some of us, anyway, disgusting—optical panopticon. It’s as if the shopper were being interpellated by all this “stuff”: Buy me, I’ll organize your home office, your closet, your CDs, your cutlery; buy me, I’ll save your life. This experience is open to other forms of aestheticization and fantasy: Imagine you are inside an Andreas Gursky photograph, or a superimposition of several Gurskys—say, Prada I plus 99 Cent plus Chicago Board of Trade plus May Day IV.

Yvaral described the glittering optical fires of modern industry and the metropolis in rhapsodic tones; he was digging it, seriously and without irony. We can dig it too, but without his unfettered excitement. As the present continues to find its desired or repulsive image in the decade of the ’60s, Yvaral’s delight swerves toward perversion. Surfeit causes sickness or inculcates boredom. “Psychiatry knows traumatophile types,” Walter Benjamin wrote apropos of Baudelaire. Op art appeals to the traumatophiliac. Pain ineluctably accompanies love.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.